The Bible in a Year – 16 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

16 December. 2 Peter chapters 1-3 and Jude

Peter’s first letter (see 11 December) was about enduring persecution for the sake of Christ; his second letter is about holding on to the vision of faith while all around are focused on earthly pleasures.

Peter was one of the three disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration of Christ, when God spoke to him audibly and Moses and Elijah appeared to them (1:7,8).  He had also seen the risen Jesus for himself.   He held onto those very real experiences through the dark times of persecution that followed, never doubting that Jesus would, as he promised, return to complete his salvation of the world (3:8-10).

Therefore, writes Peter, the Christian should “lead a life of holiness and godliness” (3:11), resisting temptation and being distinct from those in the world around who are caught up in the pleasures of the flesh, which lead to addiction and becoming “slaves” to their own desires.  Peter particularly singles out lust, greed and drunkenness, but in our own day he would surely have included gambling, and what we call consumerism – accumulating goods for their own sake.  The message is similar to that of Jesus who said “it is impossible to serve both God and money”.  It is far better, in Peter’s view, to be ‘slaves’ to the discipline of following Christ, than to be ‘slaves’ to one of these forms of addiction.

At this time of year approaching Christmas, many Christian speakers try and draw people away from the futile ‘pleasures’ of consumerism and drunkenness, to remind us that Jesus came to set us free from such addictions in order to have the freedom to serve him, which in fact is the way to a full and satisfying life.

Jude’s concerns in his brief letter (to an unidentified readership) are similar to those of Peter in his second letter: the purity of the Christian witness, at a time when it was threatened by people who claimed to be part of the Christian church but actually brought the faith into disrepute by sexual immorality, grumbling, accusations against others, and so on.

Both these letters, with their references to the sins of Sodom, are used along with other texts from the Bible by those within the church who consider homosexuality to be a sin against those of us who identify as “liberal Christians” who accept it. The distinction that is often lost in arguments between these two parts of the Church is that what liberal Christians consider to be acceptable is a faithful relationship between two people of the same gender, or a celibate lifestyle irrespective of orientation.  We agree with the “conservatives” in the church, and with Peter and Jude, that “Licentiousness” (defined by Webster’s dictionary as “lacking legal or moral restraints, especially sexual restraints”) as expressed in a promiscuous lifestyle, is and always will be contrary to God’s intentions, because of the damage caused to individuals where sexual behaviour is separated from love.

But to get bogged down in arguments about where the limits of acceptable sexual behaviour lie, is to risk getting caught in the “wrangling over words and stupid and senseless controversies” against which Paul warned Timothy in yesterday’s reading.  At the end of his letter Jude calls us back to the true focus of Christianity: “Jesus Christ our Lord, [to whom] be glory, majesty, power, and authority”.



The Bible in a Year – 3 December

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3 December. Acts chapters 11-13

This passage includes Peter’s arrest, imprisonment and miraculous escape brought about by angels.  But after this incident, we hear little more of Peter, who seems to have fled Jerusalem to save his life for the time being. From other sources we know he ended his life in Rome, where Christian tradition holds that he was martyred by being crucified upside-down.

From this point on (probably about ten years after the death of Jesus), Saul/Paul and his companions become the focus of Luke’s story.  Paul having been converted to Christianity finds his ministry being drawn to seeking converts from among the gentile (non-Jewish) population of various cities in the Roman empire, of which he was a citizen and in which he could therefore travel freely.

This ministry was, importantly, recognised by the wider church: “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (13:2,3). Christian ministry of any kind, from a time-limited youth mission or charitable venture to another country, to the consecration of a bishop, is traditionally marked by the leaders (and often representatives of the congregation) praying for those being “sent out” or “set aside”. Often they will have hands laid on them, or be anointed with oil, as further symbolism of the presence of the Holy Spirit with them.

Paul could not have achieved what he did without help from his companions.  These seem to have included Luke who wrote this book, and also John Mark and Barnabas.  Barnabas, which is a nickname meaning “son of encouragement”, was particularly close to him.  He acted, according to several other New Testament passages, as a courier of money, a carrier and reader of Paul’s letters (which he may well have also written down in the first place) and may also have acted as what we would now call a P.A.

To be the personal assistant, messenger or representative of a “great” person (or even of your manager at work) is in many ways as important as being that person, if your work enables them to achieve what they could not on their own, for lack of time or organisational skill.  Not everyone can be a leader but we can all make a positive contribution to a team in the way that uses the gifts we do have.  If you can be an encouragement to them as well, as Barnabas was to Paul, so much the better.

The Bible in a Year – 2 December

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2 December. Acts chapters 9-10

Yesterday I wrote about the changes that Stephen experienced, and his challenge to the Jewish leaders that they needed to change their worldview too.  In today’s reading, several more people are challenged to similar realignments of thinking.  First we have Saul (later called Paul) whose blinding vision on the Damascus road turns him overnight from a persecutor of the church to its strongest witness.  Then there is Ananias who is persuaded by an angel that Saul is now “one of us” rather than “one of them”.

And then there is Peter.  He is challenged in two different but related ways.   Firstly is the vision of ‘unclean’ animals (non-kosher meat)  which he is told to eat, for “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (9:8). This turns out to be a metaphor for having to accept that Gentiles can be as clean in God’s sight as observant Jews.    And as the Gentiles turn to faith, they receive the Holy Spirit, and Peter realises again that there is no longer any  distinction in God’s eyes between the Jews and the rest of the world.

The lesson about not calling unclean what God calls clean could be applied to many of the ways in which people discriminate against each other in our day – whether on grounds of religion, or ethnicity, gender, age or sexual orientation. “In every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:35) should be a key text for those who would challenge such attitudes.

The Bible in a Year – 30 November.

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30 November. Acts chapters 4-6

Following the day of Pentecost about which I wrote yesterday, the Church – at that time seemingly called “The Way” as a sect of Judaism – grew rapidly, with thousands of ordinary people and even some priests (6:7) following Peter and the apostles.  The picture painted here is of a communitarian ideal, everyone pooling their resources and making the best use of available talents, whether in great matters such as preaching and healing, or in the charitable work of sharing food with widows and other poor people.

The exceptions were Ananias and Sapphira, who let the community down by pretending they were sharing the whole value of their property. offence was not keeping some of it for themselves, but lying about the matter (5:4).  Whether they died of heart attack or stroke with the stress of being found out, or whether their sudden deaths were genuinely an act of God, the result was the same – the Christian church or any other religious community has to act on the basis of trust, and any deception ruins not just individual relationships but the well-being of the whole community.

The success of the new movement among ordinary people attracted opposition from the official religious leaders.  It is always so – those at the top of any organisation (including the Bishops of the churches) have so much of their time, effort and maybe even money tied up in the structures and procedures of the organisation that it is very difficult for them to adjust to new ideas or admit that anything that challenges the status quo might actually be the right way forward.  In religious organisations in particular,  the challenge “this is God’s way” is often used to justify quite opposing actions.  This is clearly seen in our own time in the endless arguments between and within Christian denominations about who may be a leader in the church – women? married people? divorced people? homosexuals?  Each “side” will find ways of justifying their position and may even claim to “know God’s will”.

So it was with the Way, the Jesus Movement.  The Apostles claimed that God was on their side, and the sheer numbers of ordinary people backing them could well have been cited in evidence, but so did the keepers of tradition.   The numbers of people backing a change is not in itself proof of the rightness of the cause (just say “1930s Germany” and you get the idea) but ultimately, if we believe God is in charge of human history, then we have to take the long view and wait for his will to be done, eventually.  In any case, arresting and killing one’s opponents is never God’s way of dealing with opposition.

One of the Jewish leaders, Gamaliel, came up with a test that applies just as well to our own arguments: “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (5:38-39). It is a test well worth keeping up your sleeve.

The story of my namesake, Saint Stephen, starts in chapter 6 but continues in chapter 7 so I will look at him tomorrow

The Bible in a Year – 29 November

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29 November. Acts chapters 1-3

Have you eve been in a situation where you had to “think on your feet” – to react with no time for preparation to an unexpected change of circumstances?  It might have been a sudden death in the family, a serious illness, or unemployment; or more positively an unexpected lottery win or someone close to you announcing their engagement when you hadn’t even known they were in love.  Or you might have been asked at work to take over someone else’s role; or to give a speech with no time to plan what you were going to say.

Whatever the circumstances, the natural human reaction to such occasions is twofold – the thrill of a challenge, brought on by a rush of adrenalin, and nervousness in case it all goes horribly wrong.  We are all made differently: for some people it is the thrill that dominates, and for others the nerves.  Or you may have found yourself oscillating between the two.  Is this my big break, or my undoing? Can I rise to the challenge, or will it defeat me?  Those who overcome tend to be those who have coped with other challenges before.

Peter had to do a lot of thinking on his feet in the weeks around Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It had not been long, perhaps a few months, since he and his closest friends had been up the mountain with Jesus and seen him transfigured into glory. Peter knew then that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised one from God.  Yet weeks later he had heard the crowds baying for blood, and seen Jesus on trial. At that time nerves got the better of him, and he denied his master three times in a matter of hours.  Later that day Jesus hung on the cross and it all seemed over.  He had witnessed the burial.

But also the empty tomb, two days later, made him think on his feet again – what had happened to the body?  And then the many appearances over forty days of his master alive again (Acts 1:3).  Had the death been an illusion?  Then, just as they were getting used to Jesus being alive, he disappeared from sight (1:9) with mysterious words about the Holy Spirit and power.  No wonder they were all confused. Gain, loss, gain, loss, – what would come next?  The rituals and rhythms of Temple prayer were a comfort to hold on to.

Now on the day of Pentecost their world is turned upside down again as the promised Holy Spirit comes in a most unexpected way.  Fire, rushing wind, and an irresistible urge to praise God that comes pouring our of their mouths in languages unknown to the speakers but understood by the foreigners in the street outside.  They accuse the disciples of being drunk at nine in the morning!  And Peter, the uneducated Galilean fisherman, finds himself thrust forwards as the spokesperson for them.   Time to think on your feet, Pete.

But this time it is not nerves that force him into denial.  No, it is the rush that compels him to speak.  Not just the rush of adrenalin in his body but the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit in his soul.  For Peter has had a revelation, like that which would seize Saul a few months later.  Jesus is the Messiah, not just for Jews but for the world.

It was just as Jesus had promised, “when they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).  Peter found himself giving a sermon that convinced not a few, but thousands of hearers that they must repent and be baptised.   No wonder the day of Pentecost is called the “birth of the Church”. For Christians it is as important as Christmas or Easter.

Is this of any help if you or I find ourselves caught out, surprised, having to think on our feet?  Surely we can’t expect the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us like that, can we? Well, not quite like that.  But the Spirit is ever-present, and  the words of Jesus recorded at the end of Matthew’s gospel “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”, do hold true.  The worse the predicament we think we are in, the closer he will be to us.  In desperate circumstances, some people even see angels.  And if we pray, however simply but sincerely, for guidance the Spirit will be with us to guide us to react appropriately. She may even give us words to speak, as Peter found.

That’s not to say that everything will be happily ever after for us. As Peter found, his new ministry as leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem was not without persecution. Jesus never promised an easy life.  But he did promise that his Holy Spirit would be available whenever needed.


The Bible in a Year – 11 November

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11 November. Mark chapter 14

Only a single chapter of the Gospel today, but one worth pondering closely.  It covers the “anointing at Bethany”, Last Supper, the arrest of Jesus and his appearance before the High Priest, and Peter’s three-fold denial.  There could hardly be a greater contrast  than in the attitudes towards Jesus of the people here.

The High Priest (Annas or Caiaphas depending which Gospel you read – they shared the role), when he asked Jesus “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61), presumably had already decided in his mind that the correct answer was “no”.  So when Jesus replied “I am” (not only an answer to a closed question, but also an implied identity with God himself), the High Priest took the straight answer to be a lie, and the “I am” (and subsequent declaration that he would sit at God’s right hand and return in power) to be a blasphemy.  He must have known the reports of Jesus’ miracles and teaching, and could have drawn the obvious conclusion for himself.  So either he didn’t believe in the concept of the Messiah that he professed, or (more likely)  he was, like so many other people in power, prepared to set aside his own integrity and conscience in order to keep the status-quo.

Peter was motivated by fear and the instinct for self-preservation, rather than power and riches, when he denied Jesus not only among other men but even to a servant girl. But at least he acknowledged his failure, and we see him a few weeks later as once again Jesus’ chief disciple. As Jesus said in chapter 3 (see my commentary ), all sins are forgiveable except the sin against the Holy Spirit.  To deny that you know Jesus the Messiah is a sin but a forgiveable one.  To deny the possibility of him being the Messiah is to resist the Holy Spirit, and is (spiritually) unforgiveable, for the Spirit cannot work in such a person.

At the start of the reading we meet not a High Priest, not an apostle, but an unnamed woman (though often assumed to be Mary Magdalen).  Not only does she believe in Jesus, but is prepared to acknowledge him in an unusual way, a way that costs her dearly and attracts criticism, as she pours perfumed ointment over his head.     “She has anointed me for burial” says Jesus, but the act of anointing also acknowledges him as the true High Priest and King.  But for Jesus at that moment what probably mattered most was giving him her full attention and devotion when he was highly troubled and stressed. A woman’s touch, the scent of the nard, and her tears would have touched this most sensitive of men.   Mark, in recording this little cameo scene, obeyed what Jesus also said, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

So what is your reaction to the Jesus who says “I am” – by implication “I am the Messiah”, and as John records, also “I am the way, the truth and the life”.  Will you deny the possibility of the truth of those statements, or deny that you intend to follow him, or offer him your most precious belongings and your undivided attention?


The Bible in a Year – 3 November.

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

3 November. Matthew chapters 25-26

Jesus continues his Holy Week teaching on the end times with a set of three parables – the ten virgins (or bridesmaids), the three servants entrusted with money (‘parable of the talents’) and the sheep and goats.  These all give some indication of the sort of lives that we should lead, knowing that Jesus will someday return in judgement: keeping alert, using wisely whatever possessions and talents (for this is where the English word comes from) we have, and treating everyone in need (but especially fellow believers) as if they were Christ himself.

Chapter 26 is Matthew’s account of Holy (or Maundy) Thursday, in which Jesus is betrayed by his disciple Judas, shares the Passover with his disciples for the last time with the words that are said over the bread and wine at every celebration of the Mass, prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, is arrested and denied by Peter.  In this one chapter we see his three years of ministry apparently coming to an end.  For those of us who know the rest story already it may not seem so bad, for we know what his death would achieve.  He had tried to prepare the disciples for this moment, telling the repeatedly that “the Son of Man must be killed and rise again on the third day”.  Yet it is understandable that when the time comes, all they can see are soldiers with swords and clubs, arresting an unarmed man who would not strike back, and were too afraid to follow.    They all run away (v.56).

All, that is, except Peter, who to his credit sits by the fire in the courtyard in the darkness, staying within sight or at least hearing of what is going on.  Jesus may be about to die, but he wants at least to observe it for himself (v.58), just as he was present at the Transfiguration. Maybe he thought that Moses and Elijah would appear again at the last minute to save Jesus.  But they did not – Jesus had already realised that calling on “legions of angels” (v.53) would not help, when what was required was his own free acceptance of ultimate suffering.

What Peter feared in that moment was presumably being arrested, tried and tortured like Jesus.  But those who accused him of being “one of them”, “being with Jesus” were not soldiers or Temple officials, they were mere servants. Would they have felt able to turn him to the priests? Would their testimony have been accepted anyway?  So was Peter, in denying Jesus, acting in self-preservation in order to save his life from real danger, or was he just too nervous to give his testimony?  It would all change at Pentecost.

Peter and Judas both knew they had betrayed Jesus, and both of them soon deeply regretted it.  The difference was that whereas Judas went and hanged himself, Peter stuck around to the end, and was rewarded by being pardoned by Jesus after the Resurrection.  If you can cling on to hope in God even in the worst of times, you will not be disappointed.